Sunday, September 27, 2009

Entertaining the locals

I set my pink Camelbak water bottle down on the counter while I paid for my copies. An old woman walked up and admired it, saying it was very beautiful.

"How does it work?" she asked.

I flipped up the valve, to her utter amazement, then surprised her even further by squeezing it. She said, "It's like a baby's bottle." I laughed.

"Hey, she understands me. She understands that I said it looks like a baby bottle!" She told the cashier. Then she laughed.

Always happy to entertain.

This is too good

The mid-autumn festival is approaching here. I'd love to tell you more about this holiday, but I'm not entirely sure what it's about other than eating moon cakes. These are little round cakes that have a somewhat pastry like outside and the densest insides you will ever encounter in something considered edible. That part's usually some kind of fruit flavor, but also could be red bean or chicken.

So because I lack the know all to tell you about the mid-autumn festival, let me share with you this gloriously written ad from a moon cake brochure found on our restaurant table tonight. I swear to you that this is word for word and not embellished in any way:

Welcomes the midautumn festival festival, month round person round all things is all smooth, the day and the human and all things are auspicious, are widely separated by Wan Lichuan the friendship, but asks the safe early morning and the evening.A moon cake entrance, the myriad taste enters the throat, the full moon view spends a character and style, the heart, thought, obtains, saw, smells, eats, the luck, transports, wealth, midautumn festival festival!

All clear now on what mid-autumn festival is?

I can't make this stuff up.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Who wrote this?

I pulled out an old notebook and a textbook from my second semester studying in university here. The book has notes written in my handwriting, and the notebook is all mine, but both of them are written almost entirely in characters. Guess what? I can't read a lot of it. Now, I know that I've lost some vocabulary in my five year stint away, but come on! It's the most bizarre feeling to look at something written in your own hand and have no idea what it says.

Now granted, probably some of that left my brain because, after hanging around for awhile it found I had no use for it. No use staying where you aren't needed. And I probably do know the meaning of some of them, but have forgotten what they look like written down. If they aren't characters that direct me on a menu, to a hospital, or down a street, they aren't likely something I need.

So I guess I'll do my best to decipher, and we'll see what sticks this time around.

Piano Tuning

Moving from one location to another can do a number on a piano, but moving it from a ridiculously humid country to one that gets drier by the day can make it go hay wire. And so it is with our piano.

When I visited the music store in the mall the other day, for lack of the vocabulary with which to say, "My piano needs tuning, do you have someone who can tune it?" I asked, "I have one of those. I moved recently. Now it sounds bad. Do you have someone who can fix it?" They gave me a brochure which of course was all in characters, so a friend and I dissected it and figured out that I would have to pay 550 kuai for someone to come. Seemed a little steep for local standards, especially since she pays 150-200 to have hers tuned.

This morning I taught my kids and a neighbor girl piano lessons, and it was like nails on a chalkboard. Not their playing - that was lovely - but the sound. It's not even fun to play it anymore. Then I heard my neighbor's piano being plunked in a way that was either an incredibly boring song, or a piano tuner.

I knocked on their door and was dragged inside by the Snoop Dog of previous posts. I managed to communicate that I needed the same thing done to my piano and the woman came over to see what I had (but not before Snoop Dog tried her hardest to get me to teach her grandchildren English). We debated the age of the piano, and she left promising me she'd call once she could figure out her schedule. There's a national holiday next week, so her time is limited.

I know it sounds like a small thing, but I can't tell you how encouraged I was by this. I didn't have to call someone on the phone and try to get them to understand what I needed (my listening comprehension on the phone is remedial). Her quote, despite my piano being so desperately in need of a tuning, was only 300. And I actually took action on something that needed to be done (while Erik's gone, no less!). Rejoice with me.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Monday Musings

This is day two of Erik being gone, and it's been a red letter day. I took a chance this morning and tried my hand at making crepes for the kids. I think probably French people would turn their nose up at my lame first attempt (pretty sure they're supposed to be thinner and less chewy) but then again, there's a lot I do that I'm guessing doesn't impress French people. After homeschool I made soup for lunch. This may not sound fantastic but I hate cooking. Cooking two meals in a day is my kind of fantastic. Ethan and I then read our book The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey for nearly an hour. The kids have been so active with their friends lately that we haven't had much time to read together. The afternoon turned to Gina time when my helper came - went to the mall, got another much needed foot massage, and am now typing this while she cooks dinner (cooking three meals in a day would just be crazy for me).

So about my shopping, because I'm guessing your next question was, "Ooo what did you buy Gina?" I ventured for the first time over to the giant mall near our house. I was looking particularly for a metronome to aid our piano practices, and new arch supports. I found the metronome thankfully without having to try to explain what I wanted (I was prepared in my mind to say, "I need the thing that helps you with your speed when you play"). It was 150 kuai, which is about $22. I want to believe this is what I would have paid in the US. Please don't tell me if I'm wrong.

In searching for arch supports, I found everything from educational game stores to camping stores. People, I have to say it again - this is the new and improved China. Although all of it is more expensive, it's here in a pinch. I can see my suitcases from the US less full of these things and more full of Crystal Light and Extra sugar free bubble gum. Feel free to send those if you get an inkling to bless me.

The foot massage is conveniently located at the front of our complex. When I walk out the front gate, which is also the entrance to the underground car park, it amuses me that the guard opens the little gate for me because I could just walk around the other side of him and use the wide open space where the cars (rarely) drive. But I let him open the gate for me because it's his job.

While I was shopping, Megan had the opportunity to do some voice recording at a nearby studio. They wanted to try out her voice and see if it is suitable for any of their English language program needs. The kids are hoping something will pan out for the two of them to work together, so they can save money for swivel boards. They're all the rage here.

The weather forecast for this week is mid-70's for the high and upper 50's for the low. It's novel for me both to have a need to check the weather, and to experience this. I'm loving it! After five years of an average high of 90 and an average low of 80, I'm tickled with the prospect of needing warmer clothes, and leaving windows open. Not to mention the fact that the kids want to be outside all the time!

Speaking of which, one of them is finally at the door. It's been a good Monday.

Friday, September 18, 2009


I just took a gander at the three yellow flowered plants (whose name is escaping me) in our backyard. Since my dad planted them in early August, they have been doing wonderfully, but about a week ago they started looking brown. At my dad's suggestion, I decimated them. That is to say, I pulled all the dead blossoms off. Megan helped. Our children are always game for destroying things.

I was a little concerned that I might have caused irreversible damage when I did that, but sure enough, there are new blossoms appearing today. And the lesson is - always listen to your dad. He knows what he's talking about.

Actually, the lesson is pruning. When we moved in here, the backyard mostly had bamboo growing wild, and a few leafy bush/trees that were struggling to survive in the midst of it. When my dad came, he laid waste to the bamboo. All that was left was two rose bush stumps and a cluster of these tree like bushes. Most of them, though, were fairly dead. Their lower branches were bare, and without the cover of bamboo they were exposed as fairly shabby and lame excuse for foliage. But without the bamboo, they now have a fighting chance at growth.

My dad told me that if I cut them back, they would grow better. One of them that had been cut down earlier in the summer grew back from the ground and gave me hope. Within a week or so of cutting back more, I had new growth from those too. It encouraged me to keep trimming, and at this point I've become ruthless. Just today I cut two more stalks down near the ground.

I have to say, it doesn't look as good as it did when there was bamboo. It looks bare. I can see the boring dry ground. But every time I cut, within a week or so there is new growth. I can't help but think of John 15, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." It was hard at first to cut off branches that had some leaves on them, because I thought, "But, they are still alive!" Yet they weren't bearing the kind of leaves they could be bearing. Sometimes it's hard to understand why God takes things out of our lives, or gives us difficult things, because they don't seem like bad things. They seem good, and even fruitful. But God is relentless in moving us to places of greater fruit, even if it means that in the meantime, we're a little bare. I like having this real picture of how my Savior works.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

God's workmanship

We were laying on my bed this afternoon reading Johnny Tremain for homeschool, and Megan said, "Look mom," pointing at the wrinkles on the inside of her elbow, "Here's where God stitched me together!"

In Minnesota, we'd call that, "Oh for cute!"

Kung Fu

Ever since watching Kung Fu Panda, Megan has begged to learn kung fu. I seriously doubted that it might happen, but a few weeks ago one of the other co-op moms decided to organize a homeschool kung fu class. We had our first class today, and it rocked to the power of awesome. Their "master" has been learning since he was eight years old. He trained for twelve years in a martial arts school, traveled around the world doing kung fu (I'm not really sure what that means - he competed? He taught? He just stood on street corners doing kung fu?), came back and got his degree from the sports university, and is now working on his master's. Add to that the fact that his English is great, he was encouraging and patient with the kids, and made it fun for them, and you've got Shi Fu from Kung Fu Panda SO beat.

He told them that they are going to learn all the animals from Kung Fu Panda, so today they started with crane. He walked them through it step by step, and by the end even the littler kids were pulling decent crane kicks. I'm not sure which one they'll learn next week, but as we were walking to the car and I asked Megan how she liked it, she said, "Good, but I'm looking forward to him teaching us back flips." Yeah, I don't know if that's going to be part of the curriculum, but who knows? Watch out world - we're going to have trained warriors on our hands here.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Driving education comes in handy on Chinese roads

Remember when I told you that there was a question on the driving test regarding what to do when you encounter a flock of sheep on the road? If you don't, here it is again:

When encountering a flock of sheep crossing the road, the driver should:
1. Honk continuously to drive away the flock
2. Speed up and bypass the flock
3. Drive slowly and use the vehicle to scare away the flock
4. Reduce speed and go slowly, or stop to yield when necessary.

I didn't think I would need this information, but I was wrong. I can't tell you how fun it was to be wrong.

Last Friday my friend Jen and I piled our five combined kids in her car and set off for another furniture warehouse. We were only a few miles away from it, in an area that could be characterized as "country roads" when sure enough, there was a flock of sheep crossing the road. I tried to get Jen to honk continuously to drive away the flock, or to at least use the vehicle to scare away the sheep, but she was an obedient Chinese driver and reduced her speed and went slowly.

Megan, Editor in Chief

Megan enjoys writing stories on the Scholastic website. I just sat down at my computer and saw this partly composed story:

There is a parrot who loves peanut butter and jelly.His name is Freddy.He is very funny.He is also very crazy.He wants to travel the world and climb Mt.Everest to the tipy top.And he is doing that today!But he is not flying there he's driving!Becuase he want's to bring his peanut butter and jelly sandwich's!He's going with his friend Jack and he also love's peanut butter andjelly!And he's bringing lot's of peanut butter and jelly sandwich's too!

I'm not sure how it's going to end, but it seems exciting so far, judging by the number of exclamation points. Will give you the ending as it comes off the press.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

No such thing as a free electric bicycle ride

One of my favorite places to shop here is called Golden Five Star. Imagine a giant one story building filled with rows and rows of little stalls. And in those stalls you can buy everything you might possibly need and more, especially if you're not particular. Seriously, everything from mattresses to light bulbs, shoes to purses, underwear to carpets. I even found really cute Christmas and Thanksgiving decorations at one place, but I didn't have time to buy. It's a little bit like Mustafa - if you can't find it at Golden Five Star, well, you probably just didn't look hard enough (except for food - there is no food at Golden Five Star).

So I was there today, where I got a painting from Vietnam framed (finally! we've had it two years!), bought some of those really soft and absorbent wash cloths, looked for a sweater for Megan (the one she just HAS to have because her friend does), picked up curtains I had made, and bought two floor mats. It's a lot to carry back when you don't have a car, but I was doing my best to lug it toward the biggest main road. (and here comes the point of my story . . . )

As I lugged, a crusty guy on an electric bike with a flat bed attached and a cigarette dangling from his mouth offered me a ride. He said I couldn't fit my painting in a taxi, but look! It would lay quite nicely on his bike. I declined. He insisted. He said he would take me to a nearby place, for free! I told him where I wanted to go and he encouraged me to hop on. I asked him several times if he was joking. He said he wasn't. I said how much? He said, "No, free!" Yeah right. This is China buddy. Of course you want money. But he was quite adamant about it being free, so I thought, "What's the harm? I'll give him a fiver for his trouble."

After a rocky start, during which I told him maybe smoking while upwind from me was undesirable, we were off. He took me about a kilometer. As I dismounted, he mumbled something about money, as in "give me some." What followed was this conversation:

"Are you asking me for money?"

"Of course! It's not free to have a ride."

"But you said it would be free."

"What? No, you should give me money. Just give me five kuai."

"You're cheating me!" Here he started looking sheepish, so I continued,
"Back there, you said it would be free. I was willing to give you money if you had asked, but you didn't. This is cheating. If you want money, you should ask in the beginning. Don't say it's going to be free and then ask for money."

I wasn't all that upset because I knew that it would probably happen, but I felt the need to give him a good talking to so that he doesn't try to pull that stunt on more foreigners in the future. I knew it was too good to be true. There's no such thing as a free lunch. Or a free electric bicycle ride.

Language thoughts

My kids are really into secret codes right now. They have a code book, and have actually made up their own code that is a combination of as many of the different codes in the book as possible. Yeah, it's complicated. I'm not even sure the CIA could crack this one. But hopefully the neighborhood kids will understand - that's the point.

Sometimes when I speak in Chinese, I feel like I am speaking in code. And that the person I'm speaking with has learned the same weird code, only better. Then I remember that the other person is just talking, without really having to think about it. And that I probably sound really funny to them.

Why do I sound funny? I sound funny for several reasons (I did a very Chinese thing just then - make a statement, question the statement, answer the question. If I can't speak the language at least I can be culturally relevant). First of all, although I try to use correct grammar, I'm sure I'm probably on par with a preschooler or so. I realize this when people say things back to me like, "So what you're saying is . . . ?" then proceed to repeat back to me what I've just said but in a more complex way. I'm sure my words come out all out of order, with random words stuck in like "snake" instead of "snack."

Second, my vocabulary is limited, so many times I am talking around my subject. Like this morning at the pharmacy, when I said, "I'm not sure how to say it but I need medicine for when you have little insects in your stomach" and wiggled my finger for emphasis. It would have been easier to say, "I need pinworm medicine." I am the master of talking around.

And I think I sound funny because after nearly 10 years of hearing and speaking Mandarin at least sometimes, I've been told I have a decent accent. A few times I've tricked my Chinese friends (unintentionally) when I called them, and they thought I was Chinese. Not hard to do when all you say is, "Hi, is Cindy there?" I've learned things like how to say "How much does it cost?" in a very colloquial way (saying the "sh" of shao like an "h" instead) that conceal my lack of vocabulary beyond it. Now imagine someone you know from another country who has lived in the US for a long time. When they speak English, they have a decent American accent, but their vocabulary is similar to a child's. You'd keep thinking that they should know more than they do. Imagine the frustrating conversations that would ensue. You're imagining many of my conversations. I once had a taxi driver say to me, "Your Chinese is so good!" then launch into a long monologue during which I tuned out because I couldn't not possibly follow him. He ended with a question about what he'd said. I'd been faking that I understood, and in response to my blank expression he said, "I don't think your Chinese is as good as I thought it was." Yeah, that I understood.

Ah, language. It's a funny thing.